Stuart Mill
, by Nicholas Capaldi

book cover imageA wickedly funny Monty Python song about the fondness of
great thinkers for spiritus fermenti asserts how, “John
Stuart Mill, of his own free will, drank half a pint of shandy,
was particularly ill.” The comic premise of the Pythonesque
ditty—that Mill had to swallow something that badly
disturbed his equilibrium and tied his digestion in a knot—differs
not so much, in fact, from the scholarly thesis that Nicholas
Capaldi proposes in his new and important intellectual biography
of Mill,called simply John Stuart Mill. Capaldi
has written an impressive book, thoroughly documented, which
deserves close consideration by anyone interested in Romanticism,
Victorian culture, or in the subsequent phases of modern
moral and political history.

In Capaldi’s meticulous diagnosis the “half
a pint of shandy,” so to speak, that Mill swilled,
whether he willed it or nilled it, bore the name of his father,
the redoubtable and slightly scary James Mill. That dour paterfamilias of
the Mill clan, while not exactly the villain in the piece,
fills out the silhouette of a convinced ideologue who sought
to shape human beings—or, rather, one particular human
being—according to his morally well intended but epistemologically
misguided doctrine. As Capaldi reservedly puts it, “James
Mill’s drive to control all of those around him, his
somewhat old fashioned desire to produce an heir who would
be an extension of his own life, and his eighteenth-century
conception of education as a form of conditioning were at
odds with the cultivation of autonomy in one’s own
children.” John Mill thus joins the list of enfants
in whom the Svengali-parent saw a blank slate
(or even a blank check) on which some formula-for-success
might conveniently be written: Mozart comes to mind, as does
the violinist Yehudi Menuhin, or the actress Mariette Hartley,
whose parents, behaviorist followers of B. F. Skinner, raised
her in the domestic equivalent of a “Skinner Box.” Mozart
achieved psychological independence, just barely, but died
young from overwork and too much spiritus fermenti. Menuhin
lived into his nineties, but his associates are fairly unanimous
in affirming that he remained oddly detached from social
life and rather childlike, with fits of pettishness, as an
adult. La femme Hartley recoiled into alcoholism
and near-suicidal depression; she emerged from despair only
when she began to divulge the details of her private torment,
in the confessional version of the talking-cure.

By comparison, Mill fared better than these others, living
longer than Mozart, adapting himself to social situations
better than Menuhin, and avoiding the Slough of Despond through
which the movie-and-television actress long waded. Mill did,
however, endure his dark night of the soul; in his famous Autobiography he
produced a literate, discreetly Victorian sublimation of
the generic celebrity-confession. The point of crisis, as
Capaldi tells us, came in 1826, when Mill at last grasped
explicitly and incontrovertibly the severe limitations in
his father’s ideas, not only about education, but about
the structure of society and the meaning of existence. Not
surprisingly, Mill fils had come to cherish free
will, a faculty demoted in Mill père’s
mechanistic psychology, which was hardly distinguishable
from a species of determinism. Mill would sustain the paternal
conviction, “that our ultimate goal is happiness,” but
he would modify it to reflect his own judgment (using Capaldi’s
words) “that it is only in pursuit of the ideal that
we achieve happiness,” where Capaldi’s reference
to the ideal signifies a quasi-transcendental orientation
foreign to Utilitarianism narrowly construed.

The many people who casually take James Mill’s doctrine
also to have been his son’s are thus, by Capaldi’s
argument, in error. J. S. Mill did continue to use the term
for his own view of life throughout his authorial career
and his political philosophy does incorporate certain themes
from the fatherly Utilitarianism, but the crisis of 1826
transformed the heritage of basic ideas. Capaldi’s
study teaches readers that a doctrinal label, although unchanged,
might nevertheless conceal an original doctrine significantly
altered. Many people also take J. S. Mill for the classic
codifier of liberalism, but here, too, Capaldi sees a different
reality, for the crisis of the father-son clash entailed
a crisis of confidence, on Mill’s part, in the whole
range of assumptions underlying the liberal optimism of the
day. Solace lay at hand. At the moment when he faced critical
doubts about the veracity of the paternal doctrine, Mill
encountered that odd English hybrid of conservatively tinged
Romanticism in the form of William Wordsworth’s Lake-District
poetry and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Schelling-influenced
political philosophy; he also absorbed a good deal from Carlyle
before breaking with him over the slavery question. “It
was through Romanticism,” writes Capaldi, “that
[Mill] would work his way through his mental crisis and finally
resolve his problems.” At the beginning of Mill’s
Romantic conversion comes the increasing suspicion, inspired
by Wordsworth’s celebration of human dignity and individuality,
that not only Utilitarianism’s psychology but also
its anthropology is woefully inadequate.

The elder Mill, like the much later Skinnerian behaviorists,
largely assumed in his philosophy John Locke’s characterization
of mind as an initial tabula rasa, such that a properly,
programmatically inculcated individual might readily adapt
himself to a social designer’s rationally planned society
and enjoy happiness in so doing. The younger Mill, latterly
feeling himself the victim of just such a procedure, grasped
that there is a human nature after all and that
this nature, far from being the pristine tablet that Locke
and James Mill supposed, is replete with stubbornness, peculiarity,
and urges, potentially noble, that would launch it beyond
the workaday material plane into the exalted realm of spirit.
It is worth remembering that Wordsworth himself began as
a starry eyed liberal who at first greatly admired the French
Revolution; he too had to revise his orientation radically,
as he tells in The Prelude. Wordsworth’s autobiographical
epic and Mill’s prose Autobiography rarely
occur to us affiliated texts (indeed they seem temperamentally
worlds apart), yet they share a critical attitude toward
the Enlightenment’s optimistic and purely instrumental
view of progress. Insofar as the prevailing contemporary
liberalism of our incipient twenty-first century corresponds
to Enlightenment notions of human being, as passed along
to posterity by the French Revolution, it represents precisely
the stultifying oversimplification of existence that Mill
came to abhor in the doctrinaire theories of politics, economy,
and society that always seem to garner the biggest share
of journalistic notoriety.

Capaldi notes this of Wordsworth’s influence on Mill:
that the great nature-poet persuasively expressed for the
more pedestrian economist-philosopher “the affective
dimension of human life,” a dimension that the materialistic
formula for happiness, precisely as in Utilitarianism, tends
to make minimal. The poet also established the case for aesthetic
experience as a non-dispensable element—even as the
central element—of the same affective dimension. Whereas,
according to James Mill, “there was nothing of real
importance about aesthetic experience,” from Wordsworth
J. S. Mill took the confidence that confrontation with beauty
could directly and positively modify base and uneducated
feelings. A sense of taste is thus reunited with a subject’s
moral disposition and his capacity for self-criticism. Wordsworth’s
discovery of an integral beauty in nature offered, moreover,
a counterforce to the Utilitarian obsession with analysis. “To
analyze something,” writes Capaldi, “is to break
it down into parts”; but “to see unity,” as
Wordsworth could see it in nature, “is to see a whole.”

If Wordsworth was the initial Romantic influence on Mill,
then Coleridge, according to Capaldi, would be the more potent,
for it was Coleridge who articulated in a philosophical and
more or less schematic way the flashes of insight that take
the form in Wordsworth’s poems of epiphanies and aphorisms.
If Wordsworth was the prophet, Coleridge was the codifier.
Mill, even in the Romantic aspect of him that Capaldi so
thoroughly reveals, remained an aficionado of clear schemes
over unsystematic intuition, as his ponderous Logic so
abundantly testifies. Coleridge, writes Capaldi, taught Mill
to see “the norms embodied in institutions”;
it was Coleridge who induced Mill to perceive “that
the coalescence of individual and communal good was to be
achieved through custom and tradition.” Mill kept aloof,
however, from Coleridge’s theology. He wrote to Carlyle
about his inability to believe in an afterlife, as Coleridge
did; and he felt positive antipathy to Coleridge’s
detection of a “divine plan” lending form and
direction to history. Thus began Mill’s “flirtation
with conservatism” and the “forging of a new

Of course, other influences bore on Mill at the same time,
such as those of the Saint Simonians and Auguste Comte; and
needless to say these were hardly amenable to assimilation
in a single coherent doctrine. Capaldi argues that the Romantic-conservative
influence, particularly Coleridge’s, ultimately penetrated
most deeply into Mill’s independent thinking, expressing
itself later in the commitment to personal autonomy against
the encroachments of community that one meets with, for example,
in the classic essay On Liberty. Capaldi quotes
from Mill’s essay on Coleridge (from 1840), where Mill
distinguishes between the amelioration of discomfort afforded
by material improvements and the spiritual deflation attendant
on the selfsame ease of life. Spiritual deflation cannot
sustain material improvement. Mill explores the question “how
to maintain the benefits of liberal culture” while
also rising above its “limitations.” This project
would entail, as Capaldi says, “combining the strengths
of the philosophy of the Enlightenment and the philosophy
of the German Romantics, as reflected in Coleridge.” The
necessary starting point would be, in Capaldi’s summary
phrase, a “correct axiology, or theory of value.” A
social praxis founded in this “axiology” would
require from an educated citizenry, again in Capaldi’s
summation, “self-discipline” and “loyalty
to some substantive norm.” Capaldi writes, reducing
Mill’s argument to its essence, that “it is precisely
the promotion of personal autonomy that will not only capture
the positive dynamic of liberal culture but also overcome
its serious internal threats.” Among these latter,
stultifying conformism is one and hostility to the market,
as in the theoretical work of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, is another.

Capaldi makes a point of defending Mill against those who
would portray him as just another avatar of socialism and
the welfare state. On the contrary, Capaldi asserts, Mill
never endorsed national appropriation of capital; but he
did insist that capital owed something to the social
context in which it could pursue profit in security. This
is a notion about the social responsibility of producers
that we may trace back as far as Xenophon’s Estate

Capaldi’s generous exploration of Mill’s intellectual
development and public career offers, of course, a good deal
else, even though the discovery of the Romantic connection
lies in the foreground of the book’s presentation.
Capaldi narrates the counterpoint, so to speak, constituted
by the psychological and philosophical strands of Mill’s
life with exceptional sensitivity and clarity. Capaldi’s
treatment of Mill’s long relationship with Harriet
Taylor makes some of the oddness of that liaison less odd
and therefore more sympathetic than it appears in other accounts.
Capaldi’s Mill corresponds to the pattern of a real
gentleman, who, having been wounded in his peculiar youth,
strove mightily to gain the amplitude of personality and
fluidity of association, of which the father’s paideia had
sorely deprived him. Capaldi nevertheless excuses not at
all Mill’s harshness to members of his family predicated
on his sensitivity in regard to their deportment toward Harriet;
here, the old wounds had not healed over, much resentment
remained, and the man continued to exhibit a flaw. Capaldi
reads carefully not only Mill’s published work but
also his correspondence and other private papers, showing
how each illuminates the other.

Modern commentators tend not to treat Mill as an original
philosophical mind, but as an adapter and synthesizer of
ideas originating with his precursors and contemporaries.
While not exactly overturning the notion, Capaldi shows us
how Mill’s synthesis could itself be—well—original; more
significantly (for what, after all, is originality?) a synthesis
can be critical, and criticism turns out to be one
of Mill’s strengths in Capaldi’s assessment.

While noting that Mill had only a glancing acquaintance
with Hegel, Capaldi nevertheless remarks how “the parallels
with Hegel [apparent in Mill’s thought] are remarkable.” For
example, “Mill insisted, in Hegelian fashion, on the
temporality of the internally accessed truths” available
to a subject through intuition, sympathy, or imagination.
To Kant, Hegel’s precursor in the German tradition,
Mill had a more direct relation, for he did read and attempt
to assimilate The Critique of Pure Reason and The
Critique of Practical Judgment.
Capaldi concludes that
Mill, as much as did Coleridge, wanted to domesticate—to
Anglicize—the Teutonic notion of Bildung, for
which Mill’s word is “Autonomy.” On such
a Bildung or “Autonomy,” inculcated
at large through public education, Mill’s hoped-for
liberal reform of society would necessarily stand. Thus,
at last, Mill’s end, if not his means, was
the same as his father’s, happiness for the greatest
number on a rational, if not on a narrowly scientific, basis.
Despite his rapprochement with the Wordsworth-Coleridge branch
of Tory politics, despite his sense, parallel to Edmund Burke’s,
that institutions embody wisdom, Mill to the end of his life
remained somewhat hostile to the original institution—namely
that of organized religion. Mill’s insistence that
God, if he existed, would be the immanent God of
pantheism reminds us of what he shares with the liberal project,
as it unfolded in the twentieth century.

Reading Capaldi’s book will perhaps send many students
of the nineteenth century back to On Liberty or
the Autobiography to read them anew; we will want
to read the many essays and maybe even the Logic, as
well. Mill is by no means so prosaic, in the defective sense,
as undergraduate memories make of him. I, for one, have come
away from Capaldi’s superb effort with a revised appreciation
for the eminent Victorian.

Thomas F. Bertonneau teaches
English literature at SUNY Oswego.

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